Obituary: Jose Quintero

Tom Vallance
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:36

THE THEATRE director Jose Quintero has been credited with one of the most important developments in American theatre of the past 50 years - the emergence of off-Broadway as a viable source of great theatre, both artistically and commercially. He also rescued from neglect the playwright Eugene O'Neill, with whose works he became particularly identified, and was important in establishing the careers of actors Jason Robards, Geraldine Page and Colleen Dewhurst. Quintero's staging of such O'Neill plays as The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten has become legendary, and he also had great success with works of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Thornton Wilder.

Off-Broadway as a district was centred after the Second World War around Greenwich Village, its appeal parochial and its shows rarely covered by major critics. That changed forever in 1952 when Quintero directed a revival of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke, which had failed on Broadway. Mounted at a theatre co-founded by Quintero, the Circle-in-the-Square, and starring the relatively unknown Geraldine Page, it was reviewed by the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson (because it was by Williams) and he applauded the play, the direction and the performances.

Overnight both Quintero and Page were star names, and the play ran for more than a year, though Quintero was later to refer to his sudden fame as "a curse". The bond that he was later to display with the works of O'Neill (he directed 19 productions of O'Neill plays) was echoed in the similarities between Quintero's personality and that of the tortured playwright.

Quintero was born in 1924 in Panama City, one of four children of a Spanish businessman. "From birth I was branded a disaster," he later recalled, stating that his father had wanted a daughter, since he already had sons, and also disapproved that the boy's skin was darker than anyone else's in the family. His father rejected the boy's attempts to meet his demands throughout his childhood, and later refused to acknowledge Quintero's homosexuality. "I was taken to a brothel by my father when I was 15," wrote Quintero, "but I was unable to function sexually."

Planning to become a priest, he was educated at the LaSalle Catholic High School in Panama City, but when he graduated in 1943 with barely average grades he was best known for his ability to decorate altars and his devotion to Bette Davis movies. He entered the University of Southern California as a medical student, but after receiving a letter from his father saying, "I once had a son whose name was the same as the one you bear, but as far as I am concerned, he is dead", he felt he no longer had to please his family.

Seeing a touring version of Emlyn Williams's The Corn Is Green, which he attended every night of its two-week run, awakened an interest in theatre, and he enrolled at the Goodman Theatre Dramatic School in Chicago. A year later, with a group of drama students, he established a repertory company, the Loft Players, in Woodstock, New York, where plays directed by Quintero included The Glass Menagerie and Synge's Riders to the Sea. In 1950 the group moved to New York City and on their small profits converted an unused former night-club, the Greenwich Village Inn, into a theatre in the round which they called the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre.

Their first season's plays included Dark of the Moon, The Enchanted and Yerma, then in 1952 came Summer and Smoke, which established both off- Broadway and Quintero. "Quintero's success ignited footlights all over the Village," reported The New York Times. "The American theatre expanded some 40 blocks. Critics realised they would not fall into the Atlantic if they ventured south of Times Square." Quintero himself was to write in his autobiography If You Don't Dance, They Beat You (1972),

The day after Summer and Smoke opened, we became a success. I had never known what success was, but somehow in the United States things happen overnight. They give you no time for preparation. Let me state here and now that success is a curse. It has a way of devouring any future inventiveness that one possesses. One breathes fear of change. It impregnates you with a formula in order to give birth to nothing. I believe that now, but then at 26 and having changed overnight from unwanted to the most desired, it is the ever longed-for and seldom achieved sensation of complete happiness. I was encouraged by the long line of people outside the box-office, looking as if they did not get a ticket to see the marvel of my work, they would faint with disappointment.

Summer and Smoke had many of the qualities which would become trademarks of Quintero's direction, notably his dextrous manipulation of pauses and silence. "I do not like a fast-paced show," he said. "I prefer subtlety and atmosphere. And particularly silences. Silence is as eloquent as words."

One of his influences had been Jean Delannoy's film version of La Symphonie Pastorale:

I stayed to see it three times until the movie house closed. And all that I know about direction came from that movie. When you direct, you're after that shy, inner thing hidden in the woods of your being. But it is not technique that I was ever searching for, but rather the treasure of the blind heart.

Truman Capote's The Grass Harp was among other well-received productions directed by Quintero before his landmark staging of The Iceman Cometh in 1956. Eugene O'Neill, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and the only American dramatist to receive a Nobel Prize, had been lauded as the country's finest playwright but by the time of his death in 1953 his reputation had faded and critics were calling his work dated. Quintero's revival of Iceman, nearly five hours long with a shattering central performance (his first major success) by Jason Robards, drastically changed that view ("a major production of a major theatre work", wrote Atkinson), and six months later on Broadway Quintero staged the American premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night starring Robards, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award. Atkinson said, "It restores the drama to literature and the theatre to art."

Quintero formed a close bond with O'Neill's widow Carlotta, who had entrusted the much-coveted posthumous play to him, and for many years wore her wedding ring, which she gave him as a gift. "Quintero seems possessed by O'Neill's spirit," wrote The New York Times, while O'Neill's biographer Barbara Gelb wrote, "He has O'Neill's haunted, penetrating eyes. When his demons converged, he hid, like O'Neill, in the bottle."

Quintero's later directorial work included Children of Darkness (1958), which advanced the careers of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, and for the Metropolitan Opera House a double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci (1958). Other lauded productions included Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1959) - Wilder attended rehearsals and, like Tennessee Williams, became a close friend of the director - Genet's The Balcony (1960), Williams's Camino Real (1960), and many works of O'Neill, including Strange Interlude (1963) for the Actor's Studio with a cast including Geraldine Page, Ben Gazzara, Franchot Tone and Jane Fonda, More Stately Mansions (1967) with Ingrid Bergman, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1973) with Robards and Dewhurst for which he won the Tony Award as Best Director, Anna Christie (1977) with Liv Ullman, and A Touch of the Poet (1977) with Robards and Geraldine Fitzgerald. In 1988 Robards and Dewhurst appeared in a revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night to mark the centenary of O'Neill's birth.

Quintero made one film, an adaptation by Gavin Lambert of the Tennessee Williams novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961). Featuring Vivien Leigh as an ageing widow who pays an Italian gigolo (a miscast Warren Beatty) to make love to her, it had some effective sequences and a biting performance by Lotte Lenya as a waspish procuress, but was not a success.

In 1980 Quintero directed Williams's last play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel, based on the relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, but it ran for only 14 performances. Its star, Geraldine Page, commented, "What made Jos a great director was that he would do everything by suggestion. He would give you the means without telling you what to do. His ideas were so human. So poetic."

In the mid-Seventies, when his drinking problem had become acute ("I used to fill little bottles and put them in my pockets and during rehearsals I would go away in the dark and drink them"), Quintero was aided in his fight against alcohol by Nicholas Tsacrios, an advertising executive, who became his longtime companion. In 1987, the director contracted throat cancer and had his larynx removed, assuming it would mean the end of his career. "I thought of O'Neill, in the last 10 years of his life, when he could no longer work because of the tremor in his hands. And he could not dictate and he could not write on a typewriter, so it meant the end of his life." But Quintero learned how to use a mechanical voice box and continued to work, also becoming a lecturer and university professor.

In August 1996 he directed two early one-act plays by O'Neill at the Provincetown Repertory Theatre on Cape Cod, where the plays were written. "Part of my soul," he said, "belongs to O'Neill."

Throughout his career, despite occasional work on Broadway and in London, where he staged Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1958, he remained true to his off-Broadway roots. "I wouldn't have been on Broadway if it hadn't been for off-Broadway," he said. Talking of some of the other founder members of the Circle who departed to earn more money, he commented,

The theatre did not reward them to the degree that they wanted. But those of us who stubbornly stuck it out have enriched contemporary theatre by being willing to pledge heart, soul, mind, strength and loneliness to the sometime wickedness of that whore. It can kiss you and applaud you and at the same time break your heart. But there is nothing you can do about it. Nothing you want to do about it. You are in love. What else is there?

Jose Benjamin Quintero, theatre director: born Panama City 15 October 1924; died New York 26 February 1999.

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